PATCH co-founder Andrew Aertker '21 shows off the PATCH prototype.

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The pill bottle of the future is here. Well, here at Trinity, that is.

Meet PATCH, the medical startup founded by Gavin Buchanan ’19 and Andrew Aertker ’21. When we last checked in with the product, which stands for Pill-Administering Technology for Compliance Healthcare, the business was still just a concept for a smart pill bottle that allows clinical trial researchers to ensure their patients are taking correct dosages.

“PATCH is basically where a gumball machine meets the internet,” Buchanan says. “We’re combining medicine with real-time data.”

But after winning $10,000 in Trinity’s Stumberg Venture Competition – and spending a solid summer in development and design, fundraising more than $100,000 in pre-seed investment, and networking with industry alumni through Trinity’s summer accelerator program – the team is now fully funded, armed with a functioning prototype, patent pending, and is launching into beta testing right here on Trinity’s campus. The group has been featured on Texas Public Radio, and is starting to pick up some serious momentum.

“We’re just excited about what we’re doing, and what’s to come,” Aertker says. “We’re trying to push this out as fast as possible, because we feel this is of great need to the clinical trial industry.”

PATCH bills itself as the “pill bottle of the future,” and its prototype certainly acts the part. Think of it, design-wise, as equal parts pill bottle, gumball machine, and Amazon’s Alexa. It’s a clear orange container topped by a thick, white lid that houses a sophisticated series of electronics that can communicate with both patients and doctors.

The bottle, which also connects to a smartphone app, reminds patients when to take their pills and relays this information back to doctors. The lid even flashes color-coded reminders, in case patients don’t have their phones handy. And most importantly, the bottle contains a failsafe that notifies medical personnel if a patient has incorrectly administered a dosage.

“Our product has come far,” Aertker says. “But we’re still hungry – it’s important to remember we haven’t sold anything yet. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Courtesy of Trinity University
Gavin Buchanan (center) and Andrew Aertker (right) celebrate taking home $10,000 from Stumberg Venture Competition with entrepreneurship director Luis Martinez.

Just to recap, PATCH has had a whirlwind of development occur in the past 20 months.

Starting with a simple brainstorm in fall 2017, Aertker and Buchanan progressed PATCH to a strong concept that was one of five winners of the Stumberg Venture Competition’s preliminary round, which comes with $5,000 in seed money and a spot in Trinity’s summer accelerator program.

The summer accelerator program gives the five Stumberg finalists free housing on campus and $10/hour pay for 10 weeks. Aertker and Buchanan used the program as a chance to network with industry developers, ultimately producing a prototype after connecting with engineer Doug Conyers ’97.

“So many people underutilize the network that Trinity provides,” Buchanan said. “Once we started tapping into the connections we were given, just by saying we were Trinity students, it was just incredible the things we could ask for and actually get.”

Over the course of summer 2018, the team dived headlong into fundraising and development.  They legally incorporated their business and partnered with Conyers’ engineering firm, BJN, to develop a physical prototype. They also partnered with RealTime Software Solutions to develop the software for the bottle, as well as an accompanying app.

Design in hand, Trinity’s high-tech resources gave the PATCH team a chance to build this new product – literally – from the ground up.

“We were down at the 3D printer in Academic Technology for months on end, and we probably spent about 1,000 hours down here,” Buchanan explained. “People don’t even know: Trinity has 3D printers you can use for free, just sitting here in the library, and a whole staff that can help you learn how to use them.”

Courtesy of Trinity University
Buchanan (left) and Aertker at work in Trinity’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

Buchanan and Aertker let out an audible exhale after recapping all of these developments.

“Over the summer, we were excited and we had all this time; now, we’re just as excited, and have so much less time,” Aertker said. “We have to stay efficient, but this just makes it more fun.”

And while Trinity’s network, big-school tech resources, and funding have proven invaluable to the PATCH team, Buchanan notes that the entrepreneurship program’s biggest benefit may have been what the school didn’t do:

“PATCH is ambitious, and it’s different from a lot of other startups, so Trinity gave us free rein to build it our way,” Buchanan said. “We would not have thrived in a program that tried to shoehorn us, controlled our time, and didn’t allow us to set our own step-by-step process.”

Now, PATCH’s next step is beta testing, as Buchanan and Aertker have been asking volunteers to help them find flaws in the pill bottle’s current design.

“We want people to break it,” Buchanan said. “That’s how we’re going to find ways to make it better.”

While PATCH’s primary focus is on clinical trials, the group still has their eyes on the nationwide opioid crisis – a 21 percent spike in nationwide prescription painkiller abuse and heroin overdoses since 2015.

“In the back of our heads, we still have the opioid crisis sitting there,” Aertker said.

“And PATCH still fits into that,” Buchanan said. “As one person, if you wanted to solve world hunger, you’re not going to start by just giving out food. Maybe you start by helping your local food bank manage their inventory – which seems like a small issue, but it gets you into the fight, and once you get bigger, you can take on bigger issues.”

So as the group moves from beta-testing PATCH – with an ambitious goal of launching their product in 2019 – don’t be surprised if the team’s next “product of the future” arrives sooner than expected.

“And as PATCH looks long term, we want to expand,” Aertker added. “We might be focused on improving clinical trials right now, but further down the road, we can think bigger.”

Jeremiah Gerlach is Trinity's brand journalist, writing for Trinity Magazine, Impact Magazine, and the Trinity Perspective, among other university publications. A North Carolina native and 2012 UNC-Chapel...